Saturday, March 30, 2013

Paula Bacon, Jock's Agent

A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their favorite sport

Too many would-be jockeys arrive at the track expecting to get a leg up and start winning races right away. That’s the belief of Paula Bacon, who thinks more riders need to learn the sport from the ground up to prepare for a career in the saddle. “Everybody wants to get on horses right away, but no one wants to do the lower-level jobs – hotwalker, groom, assistant trainer – and that is the only way you learn right,” says Bacon, the agent for Ronnie Allen, Jr., and Ricardo Feliciano. The Illinois native knows from experience. Bacon worked as a hotwalker while in high school and was a groom, exercise rider and pony person before embarking on a successful career that saw her win more than 500 races. A serious back injury forced her to retire at 30, but from 1994-2001, Bacon might have been the most popular jockey at Tampa Bay Downs. She teamed with late trainer Don Rice for many victories, including one with 16-1 shot Guardianofthegate in the 2001 Columbia Stakes on the Tampa Bay Downs turf. Bacon – the daughter of jockey Johnny Bacon, who died in an auto accident when she was 5 – admits it was tough to stop riding. “I never dreamed I’d be quitting that soon. It was scary, and it was traumatizing,” she recalls. “You lose your routine – working horses, being in the jocks’ room, the camaraderie with the other riders. I missed being in the limelight. I was kind of like a celebrity who can’t get a movie role.” But she wasn’t down for long. After working as an agent for jockeys Bobby Walker, Jr., and David McFadden for two years, Bacon turned to training, first for veteran horseman David Walters, then for Richard Englander, who won back-to-back Eclipse Awards as Outstanding Owner in 2001-02. Another trainer, Wayne Catalano, also sent her a few runners. Bacon’s early lessons paid off on the backside; from 2004-10 she won at better than an 18-percent clip, her horses earning more than $2.7-million. One of her horses – a mare named Afleet Angel bred by Don Rice’s son, Brett, and owned by Brett’s wife, Lori – won stakes at Presque Isle Downs and Turfway in 2008, the latter with Bacon’s former riding rival and ex-boyfriend Willie Martinez in the saddle. When it became difficult to find owners a few years ago, Bacon returned to being an agent. “I miss training because I love to be with horses, but I’m very happy with what I’m doing,” Bacon said. “Ronnie has not changed at all since I first got to know him as a jockey almost 20 years ago – his attitude, his work ethic, the way he talks to people – and he and Ricardo are humble guys who are a pleasure to work with.”

HOMETOWN: Caseyville, Ill.


BEST HORSE I’VE EVER RIDDEN/TRAINED: Guardianofthegate was the best horse I’ve ridden. I won four races on him during the 2000-01 Tampa Bay Downs meeting, including the Columbia Stakes. As a trainer, Afleet Angel won both stakes for me when she was 8. She even finished third in a stakes for me at Turfway Park when she was 9.


HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: I was born into it. With all the influences around me, I knew I was going to be a jockey when I was a little girl. No two ways about it.


MY BIGGEST INSPIRATIONS: My mother, Susan Bacon, and (retired jockey) Mary Bacon, my dad’s first wife. My mom, who lives in Kentucky, did everything on the racetrack, from grooming to ponying horses to training. I told her I was going to be a jockey when I was 5 and she told me it would be a hard road, but she was always there for me. We were never rich, but I never needed for anything. I looked up to Mary Bacon because she was pretty and flashy and riding in big races just when women were starting to be jockeys. She was like a movie star to me, and I aspired to be like her.


ONE CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: Lessen the reliance on casino revenue at the racetracks. They are taking racing out of the game. In my opinion, Tampa Bay Downs does it the right way, with an emphasis on horses and the sport.


MY FAVORITE ATHLETES: I’m not sure if I have a favorite, but I always enjoyed watching Shane Sellers ride and patterned myself after him, his style and his decision-making. Pat Day was another jockey I admired. I loved watching Holy Bull run. He had a regal look and a real presence about him, almost an arrogance.


NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST OF THINGS TO DO: Travel to Australia and see all the wildlife.


FAVORITE MOVIE: Gone with the Wind. I never get tired of watching it.


FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: (Racing Secretary) Allison De Luca and (Stakes Coordinator) Gerry Stanislawzyk. They are very agent-friendly and make my job a lot of fun.


WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … I would be a journalist or a TV personality. They used to bring me up to do the paddock show at Canterbury (in Minnesota), and I always felt comfortable.


ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Start from the smallest job and work your way up. And go to college first, so you have a backup plan.


Sunday, March 24, 2013

Ryan Curatolo, Jockey

A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their
favorite sport
Communication is a key to any jockey’s success. When Ryan Curatolo arrived in Miami from France late in 2010 to begin his U.S. career at Calder, he taught himself English by talking back to the television in his hotel room. That enabled him to make the rounds of top stables that winter at Gulfstream, where he won 17 races as a 7-pound apprentice. By then, the teenager had established his innate ability to communicate with Thoroughbreds. Curatolo began working with trainer Patrick Biancone, who had previously helped develop top jockey Julien Leparoux. From Biancone, Curatolo learned the importance of patience, getting horses to relax, diet and a strong mental approach. His career took flight in early 2011 in New York, where he signed a contract to ride for Flying Zee Stable, owned by the late Carl Lizza. Despite fracturing his left clavicle in a spill in June, Curatolo won 115 races in 2011, with mount earnings of more than $4-million. In addition to winning Grade III stakes on Street Game and Pure Gossip, Curatolo enjoyed a four-victory day at Belmont, where his youthful smile became a familiar sight to grizzled railbirds. He was still 19 when he went to Churchill Downs to ride Lizza’s 2-year-old Pure Gossip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf; at year’s end, he was named a finalist for an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey. Curatolo’s career ascent was slowed last year due to a delay in renewing his immigration papers, but he is back on track at Tampa Bay Downs, where he has ridden 21 winners through March 23 and finished in the money with 40 percent of his starters. Now 20, Curatolo has a worldly perspective from competing against the top jockeys in the country at Gulfstream and New York, a realistic view of the sport from nearly being forgotten during his absence last year and a pleasant, optimistic attitude that has gained a large following locally.



HOMETOWN: Marseille, France.


BEST HORSE I’VE EVER RIDDEN: Street Game, for Flying Zee Stable and trainer Philip Serpe. I won the Grade III Hill Prince Stakes with the 3-year-old colt in 2011 by seven lengths on the turf at Belmont Park for my first stakes victory.


HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: My father started taking me to Marseille Borely Racecourse when I was 4 or 5. He even sent me to bet for him when I got a little older. And he always had racing on TV when I got home. I remember waking up early to watch the Japan Cup. It was so exciting.


MY BIGGEST INSPIRATION: My father, Robert. He is a musical agent and represented Gloria Gaynor when she came to France. He has a lot of talent and ambition, and I got my drive from him.


ONE CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: More television coverage, especially on local TV.


MY FAVORITE ATHLETE: David Beckham, the soccer player. I am also a fan of many of the top boxers.


NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST OF THINGS TO DO: I haven’t created a bucket list yet, but of course I want to ride in the Kentucky Derby and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe.


FAVORITE MOVIE: Catch Me If You Can, with Leonardo DiCaprio.


FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: The weather is awesome, and the grass course is perfect. When I win a race on the turf, it is even better!


WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … I might be a boxer. There are so many things to do.


ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Be focused, work hard, and treat everybody with respect.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Jon Johnson, Downs Golf Pro

A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their favorite sport

The past month has been a whirlwind for Class A professional Jon Johnson, Manager of The Downs Golf Practice Facility since its opening in March of 2003. In February, Johnson conducted the third annual Golfest Presented by Tampa Bay Championship, which attracted more than 3,000 participants over two days. In addition to overseeing daily operations, Johnson has been planning for the 10th anniversary celebration of the golf driving range and practice complex, which draws more than 35,000 visitors a year, on March 23. He also gave away daughter Kari’s hand in marriage March 16 in a ceremony at the racetrack. Johnson, the past President of the West Central Chapter of the North Florida PGA, was honored as the chapter’s Professional of the Year for 2012 and received the President’s Plaque for his contributions to the growth of the game. Before arriving in Florida, Johnson was an assistant professional at Augusta National in Georgia, site of the Masters, and ran the Michael Jordan Golf Center in Aurora, Ill. He has been married for 32 years to Kris, a registered nurse at Tampa General Hospital. As proof that pedigree is often as important in golf as in horse racing, Johnson’s son Kyle is an assistant golf superintendent at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, site of the PGA Tour’s annual Tour Championship; previously, Kyle was an assistant in training at Augusta National. In addition to Kyle and Kari, who is an elementary school teacher, the Johnsons have another daughter, Beth, a student at the University of South Florida. The fully-lighted Downs Golf Practice Facility, which ranks among the top-100 ranges in the United States, features 45 all-Bermuda grass hitting stations; two full-size chipping greens; an 8,000-square foot putting green; and a covered range area. Johnson and fellow Class A professional Matt Mitchell offer private lessons, and the facility provides adult and junior clinics and a junior summer camp program.

HOMETOWN: Monmouth, Ill.


BEST HORSE I’VE EVER SEEN: Secretariat, when he won the 1973 Belmont Stakes. I also saw the movie. Hearing how Jack Nicklaus cried watching him win the Belmont by 31 lengths – Jack was overcome by Secretariat’s magnificence – proves his greatness.


HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: I was managing the All-In-One Golf Practice & Learning Center in Largo when I heard through the grapevine Tampa Bay Downs was building a range. I sent my resume to (track Vice President and General Manager) Peter Berube, and I was off and running pretty quickly.


MY BIGGEST INSPIRATION: My late father, Carl Johnson. He was a dentist and a town leader, and he was someone I could always look to as an example. He gave me the drive to keep going and taught me how to treat people.


CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: I would like to see some night racing. I think it would attract a different crowd and give people who work a chance to enjoy the sport.


MY FAVORITE SPORTS TEAM/ATHLETE: The Chicago Cubs will always be my team. Once you are a Cubs fan, you never leave. My favorite players growing up were third baseman Ron Santo and outfielder Billy Williams. Later, my favorite athlete was Michael Jordan. He would come to his golf center and give clinics, and he was always very nice. Tom Watson, the champion golfer, would be a close second.


NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST: Take a family trip to Scotland and play St. Andrews.


FAVORITE TV SHOW/MOVIE: Duck Dynasty is the hottest show on TV. My favorite movie is Close Encounters of the Third Kind.


FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: Watching the horses train early in the morning – just the beauty of it, the horses silhouetted against the mist.


WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … I’d be in the marketing field.


ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN GOLF: Strive to become a PGA member, and work at as many facilities as possible to widen your experience.


Sunday, March 10, 2013

Diana Pimental, Association Official

A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their favorite sport

Diana Pimental’s experience as a jockey’s agent, both here and at Suffolk Downs in Massachusetts, is invaluable on those hectic mornings when the Tampa Bay Downs racing office is scrambling to recruit horses to fill a card. “Diana can hustle a race,” said Racing Secretary Allison De Luca. “If you give her one to fill, it will go.” Pimental is in her 11th season at Tampa Bay Downs and fourth as placing judge during afternoon racing, when she works with fellow officials Ed Cantlon and Jen Moore. “It’s my job to make sure the correct numbers are posted during a race and after the finish,” Pimental said. “We do have fans who tell us after a photo finish they could have sworn their horse won, but the camera doesn’t lie.” As an agent, Pimental’s Tampa Bay Downs clients have included Jesse Garcia, Pedro Cotto, Jr., Jose Bermudez and Edwin Molinari. She still “hustles book” at Suffolk and will work there this season for jockey Hector Ramos. John Pimental, Diana’s husband, is a successful trainer who conditions the popular gelding National Hero, a winner of 15 of 39 lifetime starts who won consecutive Joseph E. Carney Memorial Awards as New England’s Champion Turf Male at 8 and 9 years old. The Pimentals have three daughters: Tabitha and Jennifer are in the bakery business and Kasie, who lives in Germany, is a schoolteacher. They also have six grandchildren, including Kasie’s son Jonathan Oswald, a winning pitcher for the Ramstein Air Force Base team at the 2010 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

HOMETOWN: Attleboro, Mass.


BEST HORSE I’VE EVER SEEN: Cigar was the best male horse I’ve watched, and Zenyatta was the best female. (Trainer) Bill Mott let us come to his barn to meet Cigar when he ran in the Massachusetts Handicap at Suffolk in 1995 and ’96, during his 16-race winning streak. What a thrill that was!


HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: My husband’s late father was also a trainer, and John was an exercise rider for his dad. I worked in a shoelace factory and as a cook in our girls’ school, but I was just waiting for them to get older so I could get involved in racing. I was an owner and an assistant for John at first, but (jockey) Julian Vazquez kept begging me to become an agent, and I’ve been doing that almost 25 years.


MY BIGGEST INSPIRATION: My husband. He’ll train horses in the morning and pony horses during the races. His work ethic has always been a great example.


CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: Find a way to provide more insurance coverage for jockeys who are hurt or disabled.


MY FAVORITE SPORTS TEAMS/ATHLETE: The New England Patriots and Tom Brady. I love all the Boston teams.


NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST: Take a vacation to Disney World for a week. We love it, but we’ve only stayed a day at a time.


FAVORITE TV SHOW: Survivor. My favorite player is Boston Rob.


FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: I get to work with one of my best friends, (Stakes Coordinator) Gerry Stanislawzyk. I love working with everyone here. It’s a rewarding feeling when we know we’ve put together a real good card.


WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … I probably would open a day-care center. I let everybody’s kids hang out with me at Suffolk.


ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Always love your horses and treat them like your favorite pet.


Sunday, March 3, 2013

Angel Serpa, Jockey


A Tampa Bay Downs insider’s opinions, observations and reflections about their
favorite sport

Angel Serpa doesn’t mince words when discussing his career goals. “I want to stay healthy, keep going and one day be in the same position as John Velazquez or Ramon Dominguez,” the 25-year-old Serpa says. “I want to be a Hall of Fame jockey.” Thus far, his ambition is matched by his insatiable desire to acquire knowledge from many of the sport’s best. Starting off at Philadelphia Park (now Parx Racing) in 2009, he received guidance from Tony Black and brothers C.C. and Carlos Lopez. As an apprentice at Aqueduct in 2010, Serpa absorbed insights from Hall of Fame member Edgar Prado, even retrieving Prado’s discarded program from the trash can at day’s end to study the veteran’s notations and comments. In his second season at Tampa Bay Downs, Serpa credits Daniel Centeno, Willie Martinez and Scott Spieth, among others, for their guidance. Serpa, who finished third in the jockey standings here last season with 72 victories, is neck-and-neck with Centeno for the top spot this season. Serpa also leads the local colony this season with three stakes victories; last year, he won the Grade III, $150,000 Tampa Bay Stakes and the $75,000 Florida Cup Turf Classic on Roman Tiger and the $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes on Salad Girl. Born in Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Serpa was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Apprentice Jockey in 2010, when he won 105 races and amassed earnings of almost $3.5-million. Serpa is married to fellow jockey Carol Cedeno, who is 15th in the current standings with 15 victories. They have two children: Angelica, 4, and Dylan, 1 ½ (Serpa’s oldest daughter, 5-year-old Emmaries, lives with her mother in Puerto Rico).



HOMETOWN: Long Branch, N.J.


BEST HORSE I’VE EVER RIDDEN: Speak Logistics, who I rode in the Grey Goose Breeders’ Cup Juvenile last year at Santa Anita and in the Sam F. Davis Stakes for trainer Eddie Plesa, Jr. I rode him when he broke his maiden at Monmouth last summer, and when he won the Florida Stallion Stakes In Reality Division at Calder. I knew from the first time I rode him he was different. He is a smart horse that will do whatever you want.


HOW I GOT STARTED IN RACING: I always was around horses in Puerto Rico, from the time I was a young boy. When I was 18, I went the horse racing school in Canovanas, which is where I also met Carol. A friend introduced me to trainer Javier Gonzalez, and he brought me to Philadelphia, where I won my first race.


MY BIGGEST INSPIRATION: My family, and my kids. I like my job and I want to do well for them.


CHANGE I WOULD MAKE TO RACING: Raise the scale of weights for jockeys. I don’t have too many problems, but it’s not nice when you have to go to the hotbox for an hour. You’re not always as strong as you should be.


MY FAVORITE SPORTS TEAM/ATHLETE: The New York Yankees and Felix “Tito” Trinidad, the former world welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight boxing champion from Puerto Rico. I played second base when I was a kid, and I train with Daniel Santos, the professional champion boxer.


NO. 1 ON MY BUCKET LIST: I’d love to go skydiving. Jumping from that high would be amazing.


FAVORITE TV SHOW/MOVIE: Pegate al Mediodia on WAPA-TV and Man on Fire.


FAVORITE THING ABOUT TAMPA BAY DOWNS: The weather and the turf course. The turf course here is flatter than a lot of tracks, which helps you keep position, and it is always in great shape.


WHAT ELSE I’D BE DOING IF. … If I wasn’t a jockey, I would be a barber. I cut my own hair and some of the other jockeys,’ like Jose Angel Garcia and Victor Santiago.


ADVICE TO SOMEONE STARTING IN RACING: Stay focused on doing your job, no matter how much money you make. Listen to the older jockeys, try to respect everybody and don’t make the same mistake twice.